Whether from modern convenience, shifting trends, or climate change, traditional food in Egypt is facing many threats to its survival.
What is Egyptian cuisine? It’s hard to determine, since throughout the ages we have been heavily influenced by the foods of other cultures, readily weaving flavours and recipes into our cuisine. Can anyone doubt that macarona fel forn (or macarona béchamel) is Egyptian? But really how Egyptian is it? Egyptian food is constantly evolving, but there are some foods and crops that are disappearing from our cuisine, many of which provide important nutritional advantages, have cultural meaning, or are important aspects of our traditional agricultural landscape. This article is in no way a comprehensive overview of such foods, but rather an attempt to paint a picture of some of the foods and crops of Egypt and highlight some of the products that are part of Slow Food’s Ark of Taste initiative. Slow Food is an international organization founded in Italy in 1989 working on the preservation of indigenous foods from around the world. It has chapters in 160 countries and millions of members and activists. The Ark of Taste is one of its flagship projects that documents endangered and disappearing foods, crops, or practices from around the world.
Bread, so many types
There are over 40 documented types of breads at the Agricultural Museum in Cairo and depictions of bread making are found as early as the Fifth Dynasty in the tomb of Ti in Saqqara. Although many breads have endured , many more have been replaced by the more industrialized varieties that mostly use bleached wheat flour.
In the north of the country, people mostly eat the baladi flatbread, although its flavour is no longer as rich as it was a few decades ago, since it’s not made with the same local whole wheat and nigella seeds. In the south, people eat shamsi bread, made at home and not sold in stores. Shamsi is a leavened bread, that is left in the sun to rise—today on papier mâché moulds but historically on moulds made of dung—before being baked in a clay oven. In Assiut, there is zallut, made from sorghum flour mixed with roasted fenugreek and usually about 20 cm in diameter and 3–4 cm thick. It is similar to battaw, which has a thinner, cracker-like consistency and is often made with corn.
Most of these breads are only baked at home, or communally by village women and rarely sold commercially. Fermenting chickpeas and lentils for 2–3 days and then adding wheat flour and water or milk creates a leavened bread called fayesh. It is then cut into thick slices that look like Italian biscotti but deep ochre/yellow in colour because of added turmeric. Shamsi, zallut, and fayesh are all on the Ark of Taste.
Fermentation for healthy living
Throughout Egyptian history, fermenting food has been a process used to both add flavour to a product, as well as to extend its shelf life and add nutritional value. While many rural foods are fermented and people are familiar with pickled cucumbers, turnips, and carrots, not everyone is aware that kishk is fermented from grains and milk, making a product that combines both cereal and dairy. Kishk, kashk, or keşk (and many other names) is found throughout North Africa, the Arabian Peninsula, and the Levant all the way to Turkey, but each country and region has its own variations. Even within Egypt there is kishk Sa‘idi in Upper Egypt, kishk siyami for Coptic Christians who abstain from animal products while fasting, and kishk Matrouhi from Marsa Matrouh, to name just a few variations. Most people will buy kishk at a store in powdered form, which is very different from the traditional recipes. Creating kishk Sai‘di is an elaborate dance that has been perfected over centuries and has different signature marks from one family to another. The basic process involves fermenting the milk in a goat’s pelt known as kerba. After adding the fresh milk, the kerba is blown up like a balloon, and a boxing match begins between it and the women farmers, churning the milk and creating two products: the butter, later clarified to produce samn baladi (ghee), and the buttermilk also known as laban kerba or laban khad. The buttermilk is then moved into an earthenware container (zeer), where it is allowed to ferment creating a final product called laban zeer. In a second fermentation step, wheat is added to the zeer changing the colour to a yellowish brown. At this point, the buttermilk has lots of nutrients and probiotics. The wheat grains become a porridge- or belila-like substance and then left to dry, crushed, returned to the zeer and left to ferment again. Irregular shapes are formed and then left to dry on reed mats, sometimes in a special clay room. .
Coptic Christians who fast and abstain from animal products replace the milk with fermented squash. The Matrouhi kishk replaces the cow or buffalo milk with goat milk and the wheat with barley. In Marsa Matrouh has a coastal Mediterranean ecology where agricultural depends mainly on rain water. They have perfected a unique agroecological system where they integrate fig and olive trees with an understorey of barley and as well as a managed flock of goats that they herd. Although kishk continues to be present in many places, what has been lost are the local practices and micro-organisms, that would make kishk reflect the terroir and thus vary from one region to another, in the same way products such as cheese and wine vary by geography in Italy and France.
Another fermented foodstuff with ancient roots is buza, a fermented bread that has resemblance to beer in the sense that it’s a fermented grain that produces alcohol. Archaeological evidence from the fourth millennium BCE in Hierakonpolis, Upper Egypt shows that some kind of buẓa was present in predynastic times. There have been various variations of buza throughout history but its most common one is believed to have been malted by leaving the grains to sprout and then drying them in the sun for a few weeks. The grains are then lightly baked, mashed up, and left to ferment. The final product is a thick, viscous drink that can then be flavoured with herbs and dates. Its yeast can also be used for fermentation in a manner similar to the starters used today to make sourdough breads around the world. Buẓa has significant nutritional value given its high content of iron and protein. It is said that in ancient times this porridge-like substance would have been consumed using a straw of some sort. Today, buza is enjoying a resurgence in coffeeshops in Turkey, however it is not consumed as a liquid, but rather eaten as a gruel. In Egypt, however, buza can only occasionally be found in a dwindling number of hole-in-the-wall establishments or ramshackle roadside kiosks.
Egyptian food, healthy food
What is fascinating is how traditional Egyptian foods are often very healthy and with a high nutritional value. These include the many sprouted foods such as helba (fenugreek) and ful meqeli (roasted and germinated fava beans). Egyptian cooking also incorporates many kinds of leafy greens full of anti-oxidants, such as the khodra in qulqas (taro) or other greens considered weeds by some farmers such as sal’ (swiss chard), regla (purslane), khobeza (mallow leaves), or lablab (hyacinth bean leaves). In rural settings, lactating women are given a drink called moghat, a mix of nuts and wild pomegranate root that helps increase their milk. Even in terms of snacks—which Egyptians love—there are many quite healthy ones that are now lost. These include hab al-‘aziz (tiger nut), nabq (Christ-thorn fruit), and guimayz (sycamore figs). Guimayz, in particular, has decreased significantly, as the process of turning the young fruit into a juicy and edible one is incredibly labour intensive. It is an intricate, mutualistic relationship between the gatherer and the tree, where he has to nip or pierce each fruit while on the tree to allow it to ripen.
One of the heirloom products that was almost lost but was brought back by collective effort of several groups in Fayoum (the Fayoum Agro Organic Development Association), Cairo (Nawaya), and Italy (Slow Food International) was the Bigawi chicken, an indigenous variety of chickens that was at risk of extinction and is now considered a Slow Food Presidium, a trademarked designation that indicates a collective of producers who sustain the quality production of a crop, variety, food process, or product that is at risk of extinction. The Slow Food Presidia provide a global umbrella to allow for the recovery of traditional processes and the safeguarding of native breeds, local varieties, and unique ecosystems.
The list of crops and products is endless, especially if we move outside the Nile Valley. Step into the Siwa Oasis and find a variety of dates such as the almost extinct Takdat and Amnzou and unknown dishes that use dried meats called ta’asabett. In the Sinai Peninsula, taste the freshly cooked farasheeh bread and hundreds of endemic herbs such as Sinai wormwood. In al-Wahat al-Bahariya, another oasis, sample the delicious sekouti made from wahi rice or the rarely found terfas, a truffle-like mushroom that only appears after certain floods in the desert.
So, with all these flavours, practices, and traditions, should we just let in the new, the burgers, the cupcakes, and the sushi, and forget the old? Or can we imagine a food culture that has it all?
Don’t forget to go to the Ark of Taste page on the Slow Food website and nominate an Egyptian product or join our movement https://www.fondazioneslowfood.com/en/what-we-do/the-ark-of-taste/
Egyptian Food on Slow Food’s Ark of Taste
Documenting the endangered and disappearing foods of Egypt
‘Aqrit’: Salted and dried cubes of meat typical of Siwa.
‘Baladi’ rabbits: A local rabbit well adapted to the Egyptian climate and primarily bred for its meat.
‘Bardaqush’: A fragrant herb from the mint family, used for seasoning or as a tea. Cultivated in large quantities in the Sinai area.
‘Bigawi’ chicken: Chickens prized both for their dark flavourful meat , their eggs, and their aphrodisiac qualities. They are traditionally raised by households in Fayoum.
Egyptian honeybee: Regarded as a ‘primary race’ from which many other regional honeybee races are derived, the Egyptian honeybee appears on tomb reliefs dating from 2600 BCE.
Egyptian Nubian (Zairibi) goat: Found in the northeast of the Nile Delta of Upper Egypt, it is both kept as a pet as well as bred for meat and milk production. Today, only a few thousand remain.
‘Farasheeh’: A thin bread traditionally prepared by the Bedouin of southern Sinai as well as by desert populations in other countries.
‘Fayesh’: A breakfast bread from Sohag made of fermented dried and shelled chickpeas or lentils.
‘Fisikh’: A traditional Egyptian preserve of fermented, salted, and dried grey mullet, a saltwater fish that lives in both the Mediterranean and the Red Seas.
‘Fireek‘: For thousands of years fireek (freekeh or roasted green wheat) was prepared from countless local wheat varieties. Today, mass-produced freekeh threatens both the traditional production methods and wheat diversity.
‘Gameed’: A type of butter obtained by churning curdled milk. Gameed is commonly used by people in rural communities both at breakfast and dinner, accompanied by local flatbread.
‘Guimayz‘: The guimayz or sycamore fig is an ancient tree with a long history in Egypt. It is pollinated by the fig wasps of the Levant and North Africa; however, their extinction makes it difficult for the tree to proliferate today and only a few hundred remain.
‘Hab al-‘aziz’: Edible tubers found wild as a weed or cultivated as a crop in the Delta. Consumed by the ancient Egyptians, hab al-‘aziz was sold until recently as a snack on street carts at local markets, but the spread of candy and junk food has significantly decreased its consumption.
‘Habak‘: A mint variety native to north-eastern Africa, habak is used to make a tea that calms the stomach and promotes digestion. Bedouins in Sinai harvest it from the wild, however, over-collection and a decade-long drought threaten its future.
Jerusalem sage: Endemic to Sinai, Jerusalem sage is taken as a tea to soothe the throat and stomach, aid digestion and weight loss and alleviate cramps.
‘Khobeza‘: A leafy green most commonly cooked into a thick stew, khobeza has grown wild in Egypt since ancient times alongside cereal fields.
‘Lablab’ bean: In Aswan, the green leaves are harvested, washed, torn apart, and submerged together with fried onions in chicken broth to colour it green.
‘Lasaf‘: A plant that often grows in the most inaccessible places, taking a foothold in rock fissures and cracks and along the sides of wadis. It is commonly pickled but also used in preserves and jams.
Matrouh ‘kishk‘: The Bedouin of Matrouh, in north-western Egypt, have their own local version of kishk (described in detail in the text).
‘Merahrah‘: The dough for this bread is made from a mixture of wheat, sorghum, and cornflour with added fenugreek, primarily in Assiut in Central Egypt and in al-Sharqiya in the northeast.
‘Mish‘: Fermented in brine for several months or years, this cheese is eaten as a side dish in small quantities due to its strong flavour.
‘Molokheyya‘: A bitter green when raw, molokheyya is most frequently turned into a soup or stew. The earliest evidence of its consumption dates to the eleventh century BCE but it may have earlier origins.
‘Roz Wahi‘: Grown in the oases of the Western Desert of Egypt, this type of rice is used to make a slow-cooked dish called sekoti with fried onions and a broth of meat or chicken.
‘Rabl’: A wild mountain plant used to make tea, rabl’ grows in the Sinai region in desert valleys and sandy, alluvial areas. Harvested by Bedouin women for family use or for sale in local camps, it is used to treat colds and body aches.
‘Regla’: Found in many countries around the Mediterranean, regla (purslane) mostly grows wild though some people cultivate it. Usually consumed raw in salad, it was ubiquitous on Egyptian tables but is slowly disappearing for lack of interest from younger generations.
‘Samn baladi’: A clarified butter common in Middle Eastern and North African cuisines. When prepared with cow’s milk, it has a golden yellow colour thanks to its high beta-carotene content. If buffalo milk is used, it is usually white with a slightly greenish tinge.
‘Shamsi’ bread: A thick, round sun-leavened loaf traditional to Upper Egypt, shamsi bread may be lost to younger generations who find it easier to purchase pre-made bread or work with instant yeasts rather than use sourdough starters.
Sinai wormwood: The Arabic names shiḥ and bu’aytharan refer to two species of wormwood used in the Sinai area by Bedouin populations for medicinal and culinary purposes.
‘Malh’ Siwi: Harvested by hand from the salt planes of the lakes surrounding the oasis of Siwa in Egypt’s Western Desert, Siwan raw salt is used for pickling olives, salting meat, and in a popular Siwi drink called shneenett. Today, the Egyptian government exports it to Europe to be used in de-icing.
‘Sorghum bread’: A flatbread from Assiut made from sorghum flour, it is approximately 16–18 cm in diameter with a characteristic dark grey colour.
‘Ta‘asabett’: Made of animal fat, tripe, and lungs that are dried and wrapped in a long casing, salted and dried again, ta‘asabett can keep for a very long time.
‘Terfas’: Desert truffles collected by Bedouins from the vicinity of rockrose bushes where they grow close to the surface. A delicacy unknown outside Egypt’s Bedouin community, terfas can be eaten sautéed with butter, mixed with scrambled eggs, simmered with camel’s milk, roasted, or in soups.
‘Tofahi’ olive: A local variety of olive, planted in the Fayoum region in Egypt and excellent for pickling.
‘Za‘tar’: An aromatic herb native to the Middle East, za‘tar grows in rocky areas of the Sinai Peninsula. It is used by Bedouins to prepare infusions to relieve stomach pains and coughs.
‘Zallut’ bread: Made with sorghum flour mixed with roasted, powdered fenugreek, zallut, thick and with typical indentations on its surface, is produced mainly in the area of Assiut.
‘Zebda baladi’: A raw butter with a strong diacetyl flavour, it is made by churning curdled milk in a goat skin and then separating the butter from the buttermilk.
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Sara El Sayed is pursuing a PhD in food system sustainability, specifically on the Regenerative Practice of Women in Arid Regions, comparing the Southwest USA and North Africa. She is an avid traveller and enjoys tasting foods, cooking and interacting with people through sustainable food experiences.